Rocket debris expected to collide with Earth’s moon next month appears to have been incorrectly identified as part of SpaceX Falcon 9 after a minor media attack that saw a host of outlets criticize the company for not releasing it.
Instead, the debris is likely from the remnants of the launch of China’s Long March 3C rocket bound for the moon. Originally identified as an old upper stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launched in 2015, it carries the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite into orbit around the L1 Lagrange point.
Bill Gray is an astronomer and independent researcher who originally identified space debris in 2015 using custom software used to track near-Earth objects. The object, initially called WE0913A, passed the moon just two days after DSCOVR launched, Gray said.
“I and the others came to accept identity with [Falcon 9] The second stage properly. The object was as bright as we would expect, appeared at the expected time and was moving in a reasonable orbit.” He said IIn a blog post.
After this information was released, Gray says, John Giorgini at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reached out to ask him some questions about his research. Giorgini inquired about Gray’s claim that DSCOVR passed close to the Moon just two days after launch, arguing that the spacecraft’s trajectory should not be particularly close to the Moon.
“It would be a bit strange for the second phase to pass right after the moon, while DSCOVR is in another part of the sky. There is always some separation, but this has been suspiciously large,” Gray explained in the latest update to his website.
After this discovery, Gray returned to his previous data and came to a new conclusion: the object is the third stage of the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 mission launched in October 2014 on a Long March 3C rocket. The launch path and timing are very similar to the DSCOVR mission, which explains why the two are wrong.
According to NASA, “An analysis by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Center for Near-Earth Object Studies indicates that the object expected to impact the far side of the moon on March 4th is likely the Chang’e 5-T1 booster rocket from China. It was launched in 2014.”
Debris is expected to hit the moon around 7:26 a.m. EDT on March 4. The impact will occur on the far side of the Moon, so visible damage from Earth will not be seen. The impact crater is expected to be 10 to 20 meters (32.8 – 65.6 ft) and both the crater and the new crater could be useful data for scientists studying the geology of Earth’s only satellite.
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